As Sri Lanka’s civil war escalates, so do attacks on its journalists



Posted: 2008-06-19 03:47:30

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – With civil war raging in Sri Lanka, the journalists trying to cover the conflict find themselves increasingly under siege.

They have been hounded by the government, attacked by unknown assailants and accused of aiding the rebels. Many reporters have been arrested or fled the country, while others have resorted to self-censorship, journalists said.

Rights groups blame much of the intimidation on the government, saying that since fighting with the Tamil Tigers flared more than two years ago, pressure has grown on journalists to report the official line.

When media don’t comply – reporting higher troop casualties or alleging corruption in arms purchases – “they are branded as traitors,” said Sunanda Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement.

“The government does not accept that media can play a watchdog’s role,” he said.

Media Minister Anura Yapa denied the government was intimidating the media or orchestrating the assaults.

“We have no intention of suppressing media freedom. Why should we attack journalists and get our image tarnished?” he said.

For their part, the rebels allow no independent media at all in their de facto state in the north, which they run as a dictatorship. The rebels also have been accused of killing journalists critical of them in the violence-plagued Jaffna peninsula.

Pressure on the media has grown along with the fighting. Both sides have been accused of exaggerating victories and downplaying defeats, while the government has restricted access to the war zone, making independent reporting difficult.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently summoned top media officials and warned them that the rebels, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, could be using their reports on the war to predict future military operations.

“I said that such information is a blow to the country at a time when we are trying to weaken the LTTE militarily,” Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times.

Last year, two private newspapers critical of the government were closed down after the government accused them of links to the rebels, the printing press of the Sunday Leader, a pro-opposition newspaper was torched by unknown attackers and a radio station was forced off the air after falsely reporting a rebel assault.

At least 100 reporters have been attacked, 25 journalists have fled the country and several others have gone underground, said Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement.

Many have been arrested, including J.S. Tissainayagam, a Sunday Times columnist who has been jailed without charge since March by the government’s anti-terror squad.

Keith Noyahr, defense reporter for The Nation newspaper, was abducted by a group of men outside his home on May 22. Six hours later he was released, beaten and bloody.

No one has been charged with the attack, which came several weeks after Noyahr wrote a column about controversial military promotions.

Noyahr’s colleagues said he and his editor have fled the country. The colleagues, who declined to give their names out of fear of repercussions, refused to provide contact details for either man, and calls to their mobile phones went unanswered.

In a letter to Rajapaksa last week, Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, accused the government of stifling war reporting and doing nothing to protect reporters.

“Those who wish to harass, harm, or even kill journalists can operate with relative impunity in Sri Lanka,” he wrote.

Days later, Rajapaksa established a committee of government ministers to look into the complaints.

In the face of the violence and intimidation, many journalists said they have stopped reporting information that might embarrass the government.

“We don’t want to be pet-poodles of the government, (but) neither to antagonize the military,” said Ranga Jayasuriya, defense columnist at the Lakbima News newspaper.

Iqbal Athas, a high-profile defense columnist for the Sunday Times who is routinely threatened, said this was the “worst period” in his 42-year career.

The government withdrew his security detail after nine years last year when he reported on irregularities in the purchase of fighter jets. The Ministry of Defense Web site accused Athas of working for “the pro-terrorist propaganda machine” and trying to sow “disloyalty, suspicions, disobedience, rumors, etc.” among troops.

“It’s clear that what they want to do is silence me to not write anything they dislike,” Athas said.

This week, he suspended his column.



Under Pressure: Sri Lanka government urged to respect media rights

June 22, 2008 (LBO) – Twenty nine media organisations around the world have urged the United Nations to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to protect journalists in the island.
The organisations affiliated to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that journalists in Sri Lanka had been receiving threats and had been abused by the authorities.
The letter was written to alert the UN secretary-general to statements by Sri Lanka’s government and military that “put journalists in grave danger”.

It said that in commentaries published on its website on Thursday 5 June 2008, the Defence Ministry labelled journalists critical of the war effort against Tamil rebels as “enemies of the state” and said it would take “all necessary measures to stop this journalistic treachery.”

This follows comments last January by Army Commander Sarath Fonseka who labelled some journalists as traitors.

“(We) condemn these statements, which risk encouraging those who have used extreme violence against journalists and other news professionals in the country,” the letter said.

The global survey of news media casualties, presented to Secretary-General Ban by the International News Safety Institute last December, placed Sri Lanka 14th out of more than 70 countries where journalists died trying to do their jobs over the past decade.

“Journalists continue to work there in conditions of fear and harassment.”
The media organisations said they all fully support the UN Security Council Resolution 1738 on journalism in conflict zones, which urges all parties in situations of armed conflict to respect the professional independence and rights of journalists, media professionals and associated personnel.

“We seek your support in urging all United Nations member states to respect Resolution 1738 in letter and in spirit, and specifically request your help in persuading the government of Sri Lanka to withdraw these statements and immediately stop all actions which undermine the independence and safety of the news community,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, the Free Media Movement in Sri Lanka called on the government to free journalist J S Tissainayagam who has been detained without charge for over 100 days.

Tissainayagam, who was a regular columnist for The Sunday Times and the Editor of news website was detained on March 6, 2008 by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lanka Police.

He is detained under powers granted by Emergency Regulations currently in force, and has been given no specific and legally valid reasons for his detention at the time or since, the FMM said in a statement.

His detention has been extended by a further 90 days.

The FMM said it urged the authorities to charge him as soon as possible, if there was sufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution against him.

“After 100 days of detention, however, the authorities have been unable to frame any charges, making it abundantly clear that they have no credible evidence against Tissainayagam,” the FMM said.

It noted that Tissainayagam suffers from an eye aliment that can be aggravated by stress and called for his right to proper health care to be respected whilst in detention.

In a separate statement the International News Safety Institute (INSI), an NGO dedicated to the safety of news media in dangerous situations, called on Sri Lanka’s government to ensure the safety of its representative, Sri Lankan journalist Frederica Jansz.

It said an unidentified person phoned Jansz at 11.30 am on June 14 and threatened her.

Jansz is former Deputy Editor of the Sunday Leader, Editor of the monthly magazine Montage and an investigative journalist.

“This latest threat against the life of a journalist, even in Sri Lanka’s turmoil, is completely unacceptable,” said INSI Director Rodney Pinder. “We call on the government of Sri Lanka to investigate this threat swiftly and comprehensively and to ensure Ms Jansz’s safety.”